Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Diane Wolkstein Skipped in Her Sleep: In the Footsteps of a Public Intellectual

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Diane Wolkstein Skipped in Her Sleep: In the Footsteps of a Public Intellectual

Article excerpt

We know we're here. We know one day we won't be here. But as for the time in between? How much do we dare to create our own lives?

(Wolkstein, Esther's Story xii)

To begin to understand the impact of the storyteller/scholar Diane Wolkstein, it is instructive to view a clip of one of her performances of Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep (Rarey). Elsie reflects the major focus of Wolkstein's life and work: a commitment both to an art form and to the communities that support it.

Elsie was published in 1937 by acclaimed British author Eleanor Farjeon. In the story, a child is such a "born skipper" that she outskips the fairies, a feat for which she receives the prize of a magical skipping rope. At age 109, Elsie's name and reputation long forgotten, she returns to skipping, seeming to be "no bigger than a child," in order to thwart the nefarious landlord who threatens to build a factory on the skipping ground. In Wolkstein's performance of the story, her paralinguistic, kinesthetic, and proxemic choices-as well as the impact on her audience-which in this case is composed mainly of young families-are as important as the text itself. Costumed in an old-fashioned outfit that could have been worn by a child in the 1930s, the storyteller skips rope, appropriates the gruff veneer of a greedy landlord, and generally enchants her listeners.

Diane, who died 31 January 2013, at age 70, said of Elsie:

I've been telling it for 30 years. . . . I love the line "I'm skipping for the children." Just talking to you makes me cry. I think I've hardly ever told it without crying. She says, "I'm skipping for the children and the children's children." I guess it's this great wish to protect the environment, to protect the children, to give something wonderful to the future, that you came here for a good purpose. . . . I love that one person prevails. . . . It really is stepping up to the powers that say no. (Rarey)

Diane's own passion to prevail led her to create a wide array of performances throughout the globe, dozens of children's and adult books and publications, and numerous audio and video recordings. While her oeuvre is well-documented on her website ("Diane Wolkstein: Storyteller, Author, Teacher") and elsewhere, this essay presents a long overdue analysis of her contribution to the field of storytelling studies as a public intellectual. We begin with a working definition of the term public intellectual, followed by a brief overview of Wolkstein's career, and then more detailed discussions of her community outreach, her collection of Haitian folktales, her exploration of myth and epic, and her Jewish storytelling. The picture that emerges is of a storyteller transcending the delineations between artistic production and scholarship and ultimately reimagining the role of public intellectual to include the ultimate marginalized public: children.

What Makes a Public Intellectual?

Numerous writers and thinkers have sought to unpack the term public intellectual. In 1987, Russell Jacoby, who tended to designate as public intellectuals those nonacademics who published in elite magazines like the Partisan Review, be- moaned the demise of the public intellectual when the market for such magazines collapsed. Writing in response to the 1999 initiation of the Public Intellectual Ph.D. program at Florida Atlantic University, Tom Scocca asked readers of the now-defunct intellectual and literary magazine Lingua Franca:

What makes a public intellectual? The answer is hazy. Clearly Henry Louis Gates Jr. is one: He goes on TV and writes for The New Yorker. But Noam Chomsky is one, too, and he does neither. Must the intellectual deal with public issues, as William Julius Wilson does, or may he or she simply take academic subjects to the public, à la Stephen Hawking? Are the fame of Camille Paglia and the influence of Milton Friedman really the same thing?

Scocca went on to note that the term is problematic in large part because it embraces such a wide range of thinkers, from linguist and novelist Umberto Eco to pundit Arianna Huffington. …

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